Church elders display a Christ-signifying instrumentality. They do this as they exercise the agency of undershepherds over their congregations as they were and are exhorted by the Apostles Peter and Paul in 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20 respectively.
I exhort the elders who are in you—I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One and a partaker of the glory to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God in you—exercising oversight—not reluctantly but resolutely, not for shameful profit but ferociously, not as those lording over their portion of the inheritance but being exemplary specimens to the flock. And at the appearing of the Chief Shepherd, you will receive the imperishable victor’s laurels of glory.
– 1 Peter 5:1-4 (my translation)
The Apostle Peter is writing to the elders who are in the congregations. The Apostle asserts that he is a fellow elder with them, a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah), and a partaker in the glory to be revealed at the Second Coming of our Lord to consummate his kingdom in its fullness.
As an apostle (a “sent one” or authorized ambassador) of Christ the King, Peter issues this kingdom directive or summons (exhortation) to the elders of the churches. The office of the apostle is another case of representing or signifying the person and office of Christ. In this function, it is the authoritative capacity of speaking for Christ to the nations. This office draws on the image of political ambassadors of state sent to embassies in foreign nations. This is essentially the same concept and office applied to the Kingdom of Christ.
This passage is thick with the language of sheepherding. For instance, there are several occurrences of terms in the Greek word family [poim–]. The precise noun for shepherd [poimēn] is not used in this passage, but it clearly implies elders are synonymous with pastors or shepherds, which is literally the same office. Pastor (herdsman) and pasture (grassy field) are related words from the Latin verb for grazing [pascere]. Elders are to feed and tend or shepherd [poimainō] the congregation or flock [poimnion] of God. The word for flock is a variation of the word for a flock of sheep [poimnē] and appears to have been coined to refer to a group of people with purposefully sheep-like connotations. At the close of the exhortation, Jesus is alluded to as the Chief Shepherd or Arch-Shepherd [archipoimēn] using a compound term with the root for a shepherd [poimēn]. Yet again, this implicates the elders in these churches as assistant shepherds or undershepherds.
Peter knows this role of shepherding well. After his resurrection from the dead, the Lord told his apostle, “If you love me, shepherd my sheep.” The Apostle John translated and recorded the words of our Lord using the same Greek verb [poimainō] used by Peter. The Lord’s Ambassador, as a church elder, extends the calling to shepherding out of a love for Christ on these men who are his fellow elders over the congregation of God.
The work of shepherding God’s people has deep roots in the time of the Old Covenant. It was an easily accessible metaphor for the Israelites as an agrarian nation settled in the Promised Land and as the descendants of the Patriarchs who were sojourning shepherds. After forty years as a prince in Pharaoh’s court and another forty years as a shepherd in Jethro’s camp, Moses was prepared to lead the congregation of liberated Hebrew slaves—so prone to wander! The young shepherd boy was anointed king over God’s people, and the nation of Israel confessed David to be the one of whom Yahweh had declared: “You will shepherd my people Israel and will be ruler over Israel.” And shepherding language was a standard metaphor in the writings of the prophets for the priests and the judges in Israel, often regarding their unfaithfulness to tend God’s people and their selfish devouring of the flock for their own gain. This shepherding legacy serves as the background to Peter’s exhortation to the elders. Conversely, elders as leaders of the people also has an extensive background under the Old Covenant reaching back just as far and wide. The key element in the analogy of the shepherd is rulership.
The passage from 1 Peter also uses the verb for watching like watchmen. This notion also has strong connotations with shepherding in ancient Israel due to its associations with the responsibilities of the priests and the judges as the rulers and guides of God’s people. Prophets are likewise called watchmen in Israel—perhaps the most famous being Ezekiel—on account of their responsibility to be attentive, discern impending trouble, and sound the alarm. According to the Apostle Peter, church elders are to exercise oversight or watch over [episkopeō] their congregations. This verb belongs to the same Greek word family as the noun for the office of the overseer or bishop [episkopos]. Elders are the watchmen of the church under their care. Such watching or oversight involves diligent and competent contemplation and thorough inspection to mark out the kinds or qualities of persons, things, or actions under observation.
In 1 Peter 5, elders (old men), pastors (shepherds), and bishops (overseers) all appear to occupy the same functional office within the churches, at least with respect to their rule over congregations and care of congregants. Earlier in 1 Peter 2:25, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Shepherd and Overseer. If there is any firm distinction or difference between the three named offices, it is not apparent in the biblical text.
The Apostle Paul exhorted the church elders at Ephesus to the labor of shepherding in a similar manner to the Apostle Peter. That exhortation is a second witness to establish the truth of this matter:
Take heed for yourselves and all the congregation [poimnion] of God in which the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers [episkopos] to shepherd [poimainō] the assembly [ekklesia, i.e. church] of God which he obtained (1) through his own blood (2).
(1) or preserved
(2) or through the blood of his Own, i.e. Christ
– Acts 20:28 (my translation)
Without belaboring the point, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian church elders to labor as shepherds and watchmen over the congregation, mirroring the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to the church elders elsewhere in Asia Minor. These two Ambassadors of Christ demonstrate consistent policy directives for all churches as embassies of the Kingdom of Heaven.
All of this imagery should evoke the thought of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which preceded the exhortations of the Apostles and which culminated the shepherding legacy of the people of God under the Old Covenant. Elders are being distinguished as undershepherds over the flock of God. When the sheep (congregants) in the flock look at the elders, they see undershepherds rather than oversheep. Elders typify or represent the Chief Shepherd. They serve the Chief Shepherd, and they are authorized and appointed to do their shepherding under the authority of the Arch-Shepherd. Elders are distinguished from the flock and associated with the Shepherd by their function (office) in the eyes of the flock. This establishes elders as functioning representations of Christ as they labor with him shepherding and overseeing congregations. Even if elders are sheep in their own right in Christ’s eyes and likewise in need of Christ’s shepherding, our Lord has set up these men in such a way so the flock does not look on their office as that of a fellow sheep but as an undershepherd who authoritatively models the Chief Shepherd.
The domain or union language employed by the Apostle Peter is also provocative. Elders are verbally distinguished and said to be “in” their flocks, and the flocks are said to be “in” their elders. That echoes the language of all the believing ones being in Christ and Christ being in all those who believe. It’s also like Jesus saying his disciples are in him, and he is in them, as he is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and so forth. To speak of elders and their flocks in this way puts them in a juxtaposed relationship, which once again distinguishes them in their office from the congregation and lends itself to Christ-like functional representation.
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There are a number of descriptions used by Peter to illustrate the agency of elders in their shepherding. The elders must not shepherd reluctantly [anagkastōs]. The word indicates constraint or compulsion by external agents pressing hard upon the will of the elders. It connotes characteristic hesitation or passive submission. It is not the elders who should seemingly be ruled by congregants who lead them around like sheep nor be goaded into compliance. By contrast, elders should conduct their shepherding resolutely [hekousiōs]. The word indicates firm assertiveness and strength of will, even presumptuousness or defiance.
The elders must not shepherd for shameful profit [aischrokerdōs]. The word indicates any sort of dishonorable or disreputable advantage or gain from the position. Occupying the office of an elder should not elevate or empower a man into a lifestyle of comfortable ease and lavish privilege. By contrast, elders must shepherd the flock ferociously [prothymōs]. The word indicates an eager readiness arising from a focused indignation or harnessed fury. There is a masterfully honed spiritedness or fieriness in the elder serving as a well-regulated furnace at the heart of his work to withstand and carry him through the rigors of the calling.
Elders must not shepherd by lording over [katakyrieuō] their portion of the inheritance [klēros], which appears to refer to the local congregations they oversee. Elders are not to exercise the sort of lordship used by earthly lords who oppress their subjects for the sake of their own privilege or advancement. Instead, elders are to shepherd as exemplary specimens [typos]. The undershepherds stand out as types, examples, patterns, models, or representations. They are to exemplify and represent the dutiful and humble servant-lordship of Christ rather than the lordship of earthly rulers. Elders exhort the flock in word and deed like the Apostle Paul did: “Become imitators of me according to the way I imitate Christ.” Elders are to exercise true lordship over the flock in suffering and self-effacing servitude in their rule which fosters security and loyalty in the congregants who submits to them.
At the glorious appearing, Christ will come again on the Last Day to judge the world in righteousness. At that time, an elder who has shepherded his flock faithfully will receive his champion’s crown or his victor’s laurels [stephanos] of glory. A crown of glory which will be imperishable or indefectible. Peter uses the imagery of a champion runner who outperforms his competition, wins the contest, and receives the garland (wreath crown). But the glorious crown of the faithful elder is made of branches and flowers which do not wither but proclaim his faithful efforts forever. Peter also draws on the imagery of the glorious laurels crowning the victorious commanders of armies as they parade through the city streets, returning triumphant from battle. Elders will receive glorious everlasting recognition from Christ for labors well done.
The elders of the church must contend in their work in the service of Christ, because it is contentious work to shepherd the flock of God, to keep the wolves of the world at bay, and to oppose the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. As undershepherds, they cannot act as mere hired hands with questionable commitment to the integrity of the flock, who withdraw and distance themselves at the first sign of trouble. Elders must lay down their lives for the life of the church. Such is the way of good shepherds as representations of the Good Shepherd.